I just completed the assignment on an organics management article for our January/February 2012 issue, in which I asked its author to consider a change I feel is affecting the way we think about our role in materials management.
For the past two decades, institutionalized environmentalism has held the high ground in waste-related resource management discussions, but with the recent emergence of the “sustainability” vision that reinserts financial and societal factors into the equation, we’re seeing the opening of new avenues for dealing with resources heretofore dismissed as lacking sufficient value to warrant recovery effort.
Logically, environmentalism and sustainability should be one and the same. Maybe the issue is the evolution of a concept. Environmentalism seems to have begun as a resource preservation/conservation platform, i.e., the emphasis was directed toward saving trees by recycling paper multiple times to exhaust useful fiber life (seldom achieved in reality). But, as with metals, glass, and plastics, the focus has been to turn like materials into like products. This created a new, complex infrastructure that, while reasonably successful at recovery, has built-in limiting factors on the range of wastestream materials that can be returned to beneficial use, as well as the size and geographical distribution of industrial end markets. The existing recycling infrastructure that passes itself off as the “environmental movement,” has become financially and philosophically vested in this approach, despite its inability to keep pace with waste generation or to deal with the bulk of secondary materials destined for disposal. Many of the movement's more idealistic followers reject the notion that new technologies are needed or even desirable. In their worldview, the challenge of landfill-bound materials can be met with expanded source reduction and recycling/composting efforts.
Sustainability extends the concept of resource conservation and preservation to include innovative resource utilization. In the case of waste materials, it fosters new technologies to advance recycling to the molecular level for both energy capture and production of the basic chemical building blocks of industrial society. This opens up new doors, enabling us to not only greatly diversify product markets, but to maximize the value of resources in a continuous cycle.
So while you may not buy into my vision of the emerging trinity (environment, society, economics), I would like you to use it as a tool for assessing the value of organic materials that pass through your system’s hands, both from the standpoint of traditional standards and from that such an expanded vision might afford.
For instance, how much stuff that currently is turned over to brokers for offshore shipment could be dealt with locally by different means such as advanced bio-refining processes, what might be the environmental and GHG differences between onshore versus offshore handling, and what revenue opportunities or consequences might this present to your agency?
I would sincerely appreciate any thoughts you have on this for forwarding to the article’s author.